The impact of erasing the effects of infidelity on the other person in an affair
Imagine your partner confesses to having an affair. It’s understandable that you would have questions, strong emotions, indecision, anxiety… it goes on. You would call up close friends and family, bewildered by the news. They would comfort and advise you. Perhaps you’d send an email to your therapist and book an emergency session. You might cry or rage to sad songs. You may begin questioning many things in your life, if not everything.
With few exceptions there is no wrong way to react to such news. It’s devastating and life-changing.
Now imagine the same scenario, with the same partner, but there is no network. When you call your friends, you are met with awkward silence. Strangers in support groups often blame you for the situation or resort to black-and-white thinking. When you have questions, there are no answers. Worse, regardless of your own feelings or wants, you immediately lose contact with your partner. Maybe for good. You wouldn’t know which end was up or how to move forward.
Welcome to the world of the unaware affair partner.
It was only by chance that I found out the person I had been bonding with over the course of a few years was married. The shock protected me so well through the fallout that it took weeks for the real pain to hit. And it hasn’t left.
I feel differently than I did when it happened, but I don’t feel any better. For people in my situation, there is no public support. All resources for affair recovery or the trauma caused by infidelity focus exclusively on original couples. The person left behind is cast aside and often painted as conniving. There are similarities to how myself and a betrayed spouse may feel. Yet there are stark differences in our general experiences that are not acknowledged.
A 2016 study by de Pompo and Butsuhara of the Cognitive Behavioral Institute agrees. “Research shows that 90% of cheating spouses do not marry their affair partners. Additionally, the cheating spouse has the option of engaging in couple therapy, which has been shown to help re-build the marriage after an affair. Therefore, 90% of the ‘other’ partners are left without support. Research on the psychological impact of being the ‘other’ person in an adulterous relationship is essentially nonexistent.”
People like me are unwelcome in infidelity healing spaces. I would get talked down to, chastised, cussed out—simply for being there and seeking connection with others who may have understood my pain. Friends that I confided in sucked their teeth and looked away. Others wanted to be present but they had no baseline understanding to empathize. This is not the kind of thing one can vent about during a friends’ night in with cheap wine and bad movies. All in all, I am expected to simply be “over it.”
The response from society was so disenfranchising and isolating that I questioned myself. Was I not also a betrayed partner? Did I not also count as part of this, not the cause of it? Did my trauma matter less? Did it matter at all?
The social rejection compounded the grief and loss. I knew the answers to those questions—of course I counted. Of course my pain mattered. But it felt that this was the thing nobody wanted to face about infidelity. That there is another human being involved. That another life is severely affected if not destroyed. That there are more possibilities than others want to admit. Having to face these things could upend everything we choose to believe about ourselves and our relationships.
I wrote about it often at first. I thought getting it out of my system would soothe my nerves. That draining my brain of the words buzzing in it would help. But as time went on, the wound deepened. Other things in my life fell into the crater left by what happened. The white-hot stabbing pain of grief in my chest was dampened by a shroud of depression blanketing my whole body.
Finding the study was a relief despite its meager sample size of 49 participants. I didn’t relate to everything in it. All of the participants were at some point aware of their partner’s marital status while the relationship continued, and I was not. However I had hard data in front of me. And the acknowledgment that my feelings of isolation, being shunned, and unsupported were not imagined.
I know that not all circumstances were like mine and each come with their own set of challenges and wounds. I can’t answer for those who knew what they were getting into. But I do believe that for most people in these situations—narcissists and abusers aside—we are just trying to get our needs met. I know that is what happened to me and is why I harbor no anger.
Knowing that I would have not been able to stop this happening, I am thankful for some aspects of my situation. That I had the skills to end it peacefully and stay focused on the important things. That it happened with someone who despite his egregious selfishness didn’t fight it or blame me. He took great effort to understand though it was a fool’s errand because I didn’t even understand it myself at the time. That I had the boundaries and wisdom to know that there was no hope for a better outcome. That it was over the moment I found out and it all ended swiftly.
James had come and gone from my life for a couple of years. His behavior suggested he suffered from intense insecurity or dysfunctional, maybe even abusive, relationships. I figured he came back to me during the in-betweens. I couldn’t put my finger on it but I never pushed it. He wasn’t ready for me to know what I assumed was his past, not his present.
After so many starts and stops with him, I had partly convinced myself he wasn’t even real. I’d move on, live my life, and date others. They were all fun and sweet in their own way but something was always missing. Then James would return, a flash of brilliance, and it would start all over again.
For a long time I wasn’t even sure there was more between us than attraction. Once I understood that it was more than that for him also, I put my foot down and established the boundaries. We both deserved better. I had no interest in controlling, chasing, or begging him. When he was ready to show up we’d figure it out, if I was willing and available.
We were not a steamy one night stand or something brand new and unknown. We were the worst kind of affair: we had a bond. A relationship. Something real and cherished. We took our time and rejoiced when reconnected and found continuing affection and growth.
I have struggled to assign a word to my role. I find most of the ones we use distasteful and misogynistic. I am not a mistress (a word for which we have no masculine or non-binary equivalent). I am not a harlot or a slut. Even the term “other woman” makes my skin crawl, as though both myself and the betrayed spouse are property. We have words like “lover” and “paramour” which fit better. Yet they are still predicated on the idea that I knew what was going on and was a willful participant, as does “affair partner.”
Is it such an awful situation that we don’t even have a word for someone like me? Or are we so blind to the full scope of infidelity that we are not willing to consider that I, too, am a betrayed partner?
There is overt classism that I believe is the root of the erasure. I am discomforted by the notion that I, the extramarital partner, am expected to defer to the betrayed spouse at my emotional and psychological expense. That one having a ring and a legal status by default would make a spouse more important than I on a fundamental, humanist level.
I reject it outright. For those of us ignorant to our “otherness,” it is not our job to worry about the person at home. That remains the cheating partner’s role. And that’s for everyone’s benefit. Either of us that were betrayed harboring anything about each other only shifts the responsibility from the person at the center of it; the cheater.
When it hit the fan, I had the presence of mind to immediately eject James’ wife from my process. It wasn’t apathy; in fact, the opposite. I knew I had to do this alone and having her crowd my mental space would not give me the room to fall face-first into this the way I needed. And the way I knew she’d hope I would: to disappear and never be heard from again.
But. There’s always a but.
Angry betrayed spouses may want to fill my inbox with rebuttals. About how people like me didn’t have history with their cheaters. About how we don’t have a life with them. We don’t have all the things afforded to established couples. Tax breaks, property, social status and privilege. The memories, connections, and networks. We have none of those things.
It’s preaching to the choir. That is half the pain. Not only to not have it, but to know that I never could while I was led to believe otherwise.
I’ve had many relationships in my life but none of them were serious. I don’t know what it’s like to wake up with someone every day, to build a life with them, to come home to them. The evergreen argument about what to order for dinner—I’ve never had that. Any attempts to define a relationship with someone resulted in its bittersweet end. Forget anyone ever having loved me.
It’s not for a lack of effort or desire. I threw myself into healing, therapy, psychology, attachment. I learned what was my responsibility and what wasn’t. What adverse experiences affected my judgment, self-esteem, and expectations. I learned how to identify flags of all colors and how to seek and establish boundaries. My standards skyrocketed and with it, the quality of experiences I shared with partners.
It took me a long time to make peace with it. To accept that all those in the past who didn’t believe they deserved or wanted me did so for reasons out of my control. That someday I’d meet someone and I’d understand why it never worked out with anyone else.
I’m not a believer in “the one” or anything like that. I didn’t feel “special” or “chosen” or any sort of planetary alignment when James finally showed up to stay in my life for good. I already knew I was special, that I was a catch, and I felt he was too.
Instead what I felt was calm. That we made the right choices. I felt safe for the first time in my adult life. I felt no pressure or anxiety. I didn’t feel like we had to rush into anything. I knew that things may not have worked out in the long run but I felt ready to find out together how far things could go. I trusted him.
I was the one who found out by chance and asked. I was the one who sat there and listened to him cry about how badly he wanted to work it out with his wife. I was the one who had to explain to him what that meant for me, that there were no options.
The primary wound for me wasn’t the lying or deception. Discovering the truth didn’t change how I felt about him because so many other things fell into place and made sense. But what it did do was rip open something new. That I finally found someone who cared for me only to find out that he couldn’t follow through and I was helpless to do anything about it. I struggled my whole life to genuinely attach to others. Finally meeting someone where it felt so natural to both give and receive only to find out he was truly unavailable was the cruelest joke the universe could have at my expense.
It stung to know how easily things could have turned out better for everyone if at any point James had come clean. Not with me but with himself. To say out loud that he was unhappy and didn’t know what to do about it. But he chose a path that was guaranteed to fail and take me down with it.
I love falling down the psychology and personal development rabbit holes on YouTube. I find them to be a helpful supplement to my regular therapy. One difficult, emotional day I came across a video from Cinema Therapy about the love triangle in Titanic. The channel is hosted by a licensed therapist and filmmaker who dissect films for their craft and psychology. I figured the content would be milquetoast enough to not offend but entertaining and informative enough that I could glean something meaningful from it.
This composite quote between Decker and Seawright in the introduction floored me: “Rose is the heroine of the story. She has to be the one making the choices. Staying means nothing unless you’re free to leave. But going with someone means nothing unless you’re free not to.”
The full episode is worth the watch if you have about thirty minutes. It was the first and only validating source outside of my own therapy I found that approached how I felt without judgment or rigid framing of how relationships work.
The few friends that understood me and my situation asked why I didn’t push harder if I felt so strongly, but my hands were tied. James created a situation that could only end one way, regardless of anyone’s actions. He had been unhappy, but not sure enough to free himself and thus any decisions were already on others’ shoulders—mine and his wife’s. Any interference on my part would have only enabled his indecision further. It would have only exchanged one set of problems for another. I didn’t want to do that—pressure or coerce anyone. And I was too heartbroken to have done anything else.
There exist many permutations of infidelity. The relationships woven within it, the dynamics, and the difficult choices everyone must make. There is no precise answer. There is no right or wrong way to feel about anything.
But I find it frustrating and irresponsible that we have such little data on the other side. It’s not like infidelity is rare—in the U.S., it’s one of the most common reasons for divorce. What if we explore the actual other side of it? What could we learn about ourselves and our relationships if we stopped pretending the “other” person didn’t exist the moment they exited stage left? What if we afforded them the same space and validity to heal as we do for everyone else in these situations?
What if we knew more about the emotional trauma an extramarital partner endures to help them? My experience is uniquely mine. But with what little information I can find, I know I am not alone in it, despite how isolated I have been. If people like me had more resources and it was safe for us to say these things out loud and be supported—imagine the possibilities for everyone involved.